Rules, Stress, and Parenting

Referring to “Responsibilities” is more effective than using “Rules.”

When raising and disciplining children, many parents rely on rules. In reality, though, the use of the term “rules” in parenting is often counterproductive. Rules are used to control—not to inspire. Although essential in games, rules are counterproductive in relationships. 

Think of it this way: If a rule is broken, a mindset of enforcement is naturally created. The adult’s thinking goes something like, “If I don’t do something about this, it will occur again and I’ll lose my authority.” The situation between the adult and child immediately becomes adversarial.

The use of the term “rules” prompts the parent to assume the role of a cop—a position of enforcement—rather than a more encouraging stance similar to that of a coach. As a coach, you are more inclined to view a youngster’s misbehavior as an opportunity to help rather than to hurt. Therefore, instead of relying on rules, a better approach is to use the term “responsibilities” and help the child develop “procedures.” Consider the following points. 

Responsibilities empower

Responsibilities empower and elevate. They are stated in positive terms, whereas rules are often stated in negative terms. Notice in the following examples how the customary rules are de-motivating while the responsibilities are empowering:



No hitting

  Be kind to others

Don’t make a mess

  Take care of my things

Don’t blame others for your mistakes

  Accept ownership of my choices

Stay out of your brother’s room

  Show respect for other people’s property

Don’t be late

  Plan ahead so I can be on time

When communications are in positive terms, there is a natural tendency for you to help rather than to punish. So, rather than using the term “rules” to describe what you don’t want, use a term that describes what you do want. 

For example, if you say to a child, “You are always late,” the child is not empowered to change. However, by saying to the child, “You have such great skills in many areas. Why not add being on time to them?” now you have reminded the youngster of successes upon which to build. You have encouraged the child to strive because of the positive picture you have created.

Rules impair relationships

Rules imply an ultimatum. A rule not followed often leads to an accusatory encounter, which results in some type of psychological pain—be it anger or resentment on the part of both parent and child. The rationale is that there must be a punishment for breaking a rule. 

Imposing a punishment, by its very nature, is coercive. It encourages feelings of hostility, which are hardly conducive for positive relationships. As parents, we typically do not operate out of a desire to enforce rules, impose consequences, or dole out punishments. Our desire is to share knowledge, help develop skills, empower with wisdom, and be a role model and mentor—not a police officer. Because rules create an enforcement mentality, the relationship between parent and child can only improve as the reliance on the term “rules” is reduced.

Procedures promote responsibility

Establishing procedures and then practicing them until they become routine helps young people to know exactly how things should be done. When young people know exactly what is expected of them, they are more likely to take responsibility and act accordingly. Because there is no having to guess about how should be done, opportunities for irresponsible behavior decrease. Simply stated, we live our lives on procedures. From the time we get out of bed in the morning until we arrive at the same destination at night, we follow procedures. Procedures give structure. The procedures you teach become the habits of your children.

Following is an example of how a seemingly simple procedure can redirect attention and the resulting emotions, thereby prompting responsible behavior. You can use this procedure for yourself as well as teach it to your children.

Picture a traffic signal with red, yellow, and green lights. At the first emotional “hijack” (red light), breathe as though you were gasping for a breath. Take a deep gasp a second time and notice that your jaw drops open and your tongue drops to the bottom of your mouth. (It is impossible to gasp with a closed mouth.) This simple procedure of taking a gasp of air immediately relaxes the jaw as well as the tension in the nearby nerves that otherwise would send the stress throughout the body. 

Now, in the moment that it takes to gasp and release the tension, your mind has the opportunity to redirect thinking so you can consider options (yellow light). Having considered a few options, choose one (green light).

For example, given a situation where two siblings are fighting, or an impulse to throw something, or road rages, gasp a deep breath (red) and then think of your options. Depending on the situation, a suitable option might be eliciting a consequence if fighting continues, reflecting on how you would feel after breaking something thrown, or redirecting your thoughts (perhaps the person who just cut you off in traffic is taking his child to the emergency room). This redirecting your thinking will immediately relieve the negative emotion. The only sure way to relieve or change an emotion is to redirect your thoughts.

This simple three-step strategy is easy to teach to children. Make or buy a small drawing of a traffic signal and fill in the colors of the signal. With older children, just a mental image of a traffic signal will do. This procedure needs to be continually practiced until it becomes habitual. The next time the youngster allows emotions to direct behavior, your first action should be to hold up a picture of the traffic signal. Trying to reason or impose consequences means nothing to a person in a highly emotional state. Using a procedure is significantly more successful than threatening or punishing—and is less stressful on both parties. 

Even very young people can learn that, although emotions and thoughts cannot be stopped from erupting, growth and maturation come according to how people respond to them. The more an emotion such as anger is responded to with a procedure, the less will be both its frequency and intensity. It is very important to understand that you cannot prevent an emotion. Telling someone not to have an emotion is useless. Instead, redirect the thinking, and because attention is now elsewhere, so is the previous emotion.

Replace Rules with Responsibilities

Granted, when you start promoting responsibility and procedures rather than announcing rules, you will feel odd or funny at first because it will be so different from your usual approach. But soon you and your youngster will realize more satisfaction by taking personal responsibility instead of relying on someone else’s rules to dictate behavior. Rules subconsciously tell the child, “I have to enforce rules to take care of you because you can’t do it for yourself.” As a result, the child’s self-esteem is compromised. However, when parents foster responsibilities by teaching procedures, they communicate to the child, “I am here for you if you need me, and I have faith that you can make the right decisions.” That’s when the child learns to behave in a more autonomous, responsible way.

1 Comment
  1. This was helpful